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Opinion

Op-Ed: Are scooters a transit solution or a Trojan Horse for big tech to colonize our public spaces?

Bird scooters
(Los Angeles Times)

Summer is here and the electronic hum of scooters is filling city sidewalks all over the world. From L.A. to D.C., many American downtowns have hit their one-year anniversary with scooters, and European capitals have begun to allow them.

The benefit is obvious: Scooters provide on-demand, affordable mobility to any able-bodied smartphone user. As the vehicle’s fan base grows, however, so do the frustrations that provoke other urbanites to detest them — abandoned scooters left on walkways and even scooter-pedestrian collisions. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo says escalating tensions are leading to “anarchy” on her city’s boulevards and footpaths. And an even bigger issue looms over arguments for and against this revamped child’s toy. Scooters may well be the Trojan Horse with which big tech colonizes the world’s public space.

Scooters (and dockless e-bikes) inhabit cities like few other consumer products ever have. Through location-tracking and app-based transactions, scooter barons oversee their business from a distance while storing their entire inventories on our streets and sidewalks for next to nothing. When in use, scooters generate revenue for Bird, Lime or some other “micro-mobility” company. When not in use, they just sit there, wherever there happens to be: a bike lane, a doorway, a neighbor’s front yard. Citizens have no lawful recourse, leading some to resort to micro-vandalism.

Scooters’ success in spite of the persistent backlash is a warning about whether tech can succeed in leveraging public space. A playbook seems to be taking shape. First, identify a point of friction in urban life (such as “the last-mile problem” in public transportation). Next, develop a profitable solution and deploy it in cities and ask for permission later. When people howl, let your early adopters fight the battle for you — use them as a shield whenever critics speak ill of your business model. Finally, push aggressive expansion while voicing support for sensible regulations that are essentially unenforceable.

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Like Uber and Airbnb before them, scooter companies aim to satisfy their customers with little regard for how their businesses affect our cities’ ecosystems. All three services tamper with neighborhood norms in ways that are annoying at first and deeply disturbing upon further inspection. Via Airbnb, for instance, a quaint bungalow surrounded by family homes suddenly becomes a bachelor party pad replete with fresh groups of drunken idiots each weekend. Annoying. But what’s far more worrisome is recent data indicating that Airbnb is worsening the housing crisis in cities like Los Angeles and New Orleans. Landlords love Airbnb: Why lease a place to lower-income tenants for $900 a month when you can earn double by renting it out here and there to well-off tourists? When residential units are converted into the equivalent of chic motels, the pool of long-term housing decreases and rental prices rise.

 Ideas and commentary on building a livable, sustainable Los Angeles.

As for Uber and other ride-sharing apps, originally framed as a solution to urban congestion, they are instead putting more cars on the road, making traffic worse. A San Francisco study found that bumper-to-bumper delays soared 62% from 2010 to 2016, and roughly half of this increase was caused by ride-sharing vehicles. Very few riders are choosing to share trips with other passengers and rates of car ownership in the city remain steady. The big loser has been public transit, particularly buses, whose ridership has decreased nearly 13% — a drop that presents grave challenges to a service that is both more affordable and energy efficient than Uber’s fleet of vehicles.

Now, as big tech monetizes curbs and doorways and sidewalks, we’re seeing the marginalization of non-motorists who, by choice or necessity, traverse the city on their own power. Scooters at rest and in motion create barriers for parents with strollers, frail elderly pedestrians and especially the disabled. It is perturbing for a jogger or cyclist to come upon an abandoned scooter blocking their path. That this happens regularly to wheelchair users and the visually impaired is unconscionable. Decades of activism and legal battles to secure ADA accommodations in the built environment are being causally brushed aside in the name of enhancing mobility for those who can easily walk.

Granted, it’s early days for scooters; perhaps a solution will emerge. But soon it won’t just be scooters anymore. In Amazon’s office parks and Google’s test towns, drone services are being readied to pick up and drop off items at a slab of concrete near you. Even Georgia Tech’s library is using drones to fly books around campus to students too busy to swing by the stacks. Eight states have recently passed legislation that will allow delivery robots to roam the sidewalks. Meanwhile, wannabe Zuckerbergs that no one yet knows about are learning from scooters and dreaming up the next big thing they can plop all over the place.

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The scooter experiment proves how difficult it is to establish a retroactive ban after some residents have already fallen in love with a new disruptive gadget. Absent better laws anticipating the takeover, the next battles, too, are likely to be lost on Day 1.

John Tinnell is author of Actionable Media: Digital Communication beyond the Desktopand director of digital studies at the University of Colorado, Denver.


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